Well, first off, there is no way they can call this the “Mini Conference” anymore with 600 people in attendance this year. What fantastic numbers! Chris Hass, in his opening, even joked about a contest for new names—and I think he was only half joking. Even the new location at the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge couldn’t hold everyone as we crammed our way down the hallway to make it to sessions. I’m not sure what they are going to do next year. After the opening and breakfast we were on a roll though and made our way through the crowds.

I was happy to start off the day with a packed room for my presentation, “I’m in the User’s Shoes, Now What? How an Empathetic Perspective on UXD Leads to Innovation”. The wonderfully engaged crowd joined me for a 45-minute overview of ideas concerning the importance of empathy in UXD and how an empathetic approach can help lead to innovative ideas. This was my first time with this presentation, and I was excited to share it with such a great audience.

I started with some thoughts around the parallels between rehearsal and UXD and the relevance of working in a cyclical and iterative process. My main point is that if your process is going to be empathetic, that requires lots of immediacy and touch points, so you need iteration. But the energy really picked up in my presentation when I moved on to talk about how to build a truly empathetic ensemble, one that moves beyond a team to find the kind of magic great improvisation abounds with. From the questions at the end it seemed like this struggle to build a harmonious ensemble struck a chord with many people in the audience. Understandable, as this is definitely a challenge, though not an insurmountable one. Practical and actionable recommendations were the biggest request at the end. I’m now developing workshop activities and real examples in action for next time.

From there, the day was an interesting mix that held some particular highlights for me. It was refreshing to hear others talking about interaction design from a structural perspective, before getting functional, in “Grid Systems: Building Blocks to a Better UX”. Using grids as a language to talk about the idea of structure was a clever choice by Klein and DiTommaso; making it relate to something everyone could easily understand and take something away from the conversation. It would have been great to get to see some more translation of grid systems into actual designs though and how the presenters have applied them in larger, structural systems.

Particularly exciting to hear was the session “Beyond Usability Testing” by Hawley and Berlin, and its proposal that sometimes you need to understand and evaluate the usefulness of a product before you can do usability testing. It reminded me of some of the ideas in the presentation David Rondeau and I did for MiniUPA a couple years back called “Why Usability Should Never Come First”. What I found great was the discussion around how to understand when your client is really asking to test for usefulness, when they think they are asking for usability. The presentation provided great clues for listening in order to separate that request out, which is fantastic. Oftentimes just hearing the distinction is the hardest part. I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to separate out these two ideas of usefulness and usability, and it was great to hear others singing the same tune.

One of the great things about going to an event like this is just getting to talk with people and hear what the themes and current issues are in the field. And I definitely was intrigued by some things I heard. In particular, I heard the word iteration a lot of times during the day from others, much to my surprise and pleasure. Though from certain conversations, like the one in the panel discussion “Building Out a User Experience Team,” it seems that we need to be careful to distinguish between iterative and agile. What I took away is that my point early in the day about the importance of the role of a “Director” (who holds the vision together) in an iterative process is critical. It is often a missing ingredient that makes agile frustrating, and at times unsuccessful. As UX professionals, we can provide true value by picking up this role.

Overall, I get the sense that User Experience as a field is swiftly moving into its adolescent phase – we’ve gotten our independence and now continue to test new ways to dress and characterize ourselves to find the best fit and presentation. This was different than last year where people still seemed more concerned with understanding the best practices; now the focus is on a strong voice and organization around User Experience and finding the right ways to engage with the rest of the organization in a productive manner. It’s wonderful to see the progress the field makes every year.

All in all, it was a good day at MiniUPA 2011. It was a great opportunity to share ideas and learn with other UX people. Check out the Slideshare event for presentations and photos.